A Nutty Report

The BBC gave huge publicity today to a study in the Lancet that supposedly compared the harm done inflicted by various ‘drugs’. As it was co-authored by Professor David Nutt and his ‘Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs’ it will be no surprise to anyone that alcohol is the worst drug by a long way.

It seems the BBC will jump in ecstasy to report any supposed scientific ‘facts’ about alcohol but most reasonable and scientifically literate observers should now realise that these neo-prohibitionists are overstating their case so much they’re now discrediting themselves.

How is it that they can  possibly equate the harm of alcohol usage with that of heroin and crack cocaine when the vast majority of the population of the UK use alcohol without inflicting any harm whatsoever on the rest of society? Because for the simple reason that more people use alcohol in aggregate.  What kind of scientific logic is this? When interviewed on Radio 2 today Nutt readily accepted the equivalent argument, based on his premise, that knives cause far more harm to society than guns — their ready availability might mean they are implicated in more crimes overall than guns but is that an argument for removing them from everyone’s kitchen?

There are valid points to be made about alcohol abuse and (proper) binge drinking but this study is such a lightweight piece of self-re-inforcing prejudice that it’s surprising that it ever got published in The Lancet. If I understand the BBC report correctly then it’s just a weighted model of the subjective opinions of a group of self-selected experts.

I wouldn’t like to live in a society where the numbers of people using crack cocaine and alcohol were reversed. It seems the last home secretary was right to dismiss Professor Nutt as he’s clearly a man with his own agenda. As a Daily Telegraph report from last year showed he is not without his own person interest in this debate — they report he’s working on a commercial alcohol substitute.

Of course, we wouldn’t expect the government to protest too much at shoddy statistical prejudice declaiming the evils of drink — they stand to cut a substantial amount of deficit by taxing our sin. It’s a shame that the actions of the likes of Nutt, by providing a supposed justification for higher duty, might cause responsible alcohol consumption in pubs to be endangered in favour of supermarket tinnies of wifebeater — but that’s what perhaps they’d like to see more of?

Smithy Izzard Isn’t He?

Sport Relief is an interesting concept. Someone must have thought ‘sports personalities are treated like celebrities these days, why not use them to do Comic Relief again without risking over-exposure’. The problem with this luvvie-PR approach is that the majority of sports personalities (although that phrase in itself is often an oxymoron) have less sense of humour than a set of goalposts.

The kind of selfless determination and motivation that’s required to get to the top in sport is almost, by definition, less receptive to many kinds of humour, particularly British self-deprecation. This is no doubt more true in individual events where there’s less social interaction than in teams. Also, the time needed to train and practice, particularly as a young person, means that many athletes are less likely to have spent time watching comedy on television.

This was comically apparent during James Corden’s ‘Smithy’ section on ‘Sports Relief’ last night. While I watch ‘Gavin and Stacey’ I wouldn’t class myself as a huge fan: it seems to be this year’s ‘Little Britain’ and seems to be similarly pumped up by the BBC hype machine, perhaps as evidence that not everything on BBC3 is total garbage. The appeal of the programme seems to come more from the engaging performances of Matthew Horne and the lovely Joanna Page (one of the recipients of Jonathan Ross’s loathsome lustings) plus good support from Alison Steadman and the ubiquitous Rob Brydon. The characters played by Corden and Ruth Jones seem to me to undermine the rest of programme.

Corden’s ‘Smithy’ character seems to be positioned by comedy opinion formers, such as Comic Relief, as a sort of mouthy, loveable slob England-supporting, sports following couch potato — sort of Loadsamoney with sport replacing the dosh. ‘Sport Relief’ showed a performance he must have done as a warm-up for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year last December which was a bit peculiar.

He started with a mock acceptance as Coach of the Year, then did a mock acceptance speech which veered at times into a serious rant and then followed, as if in apology, with a hammed up ‘let’s make Britain great’ conclusion. What was striking about the performance was that he picked on some of the sports celebrities in the audience in traditional stand-up fashion — and the looks on some of their faces were  of absolute thunder which said clear as day ‘I am a living legend. You can’t take the piss out of me.’

Fabio Capello probably didn’t know what the hell was going on so he laughed amiably throughout. Similarly, genuinely laid-back personalities like Ryan Giggs knew to laugh along at the (not very funny) suggestion he was about 45 by now. Also, politicians like Lord Coe knew that the worst thing to do in these circumstances was to look peeved or offended — though the Ovett remark seemed quite close to the bone. However, Freddie Flintoff’s face was a picture when Corden ridiculed his nickname and his injury record (pointing out that his drinking arm was always in good order). Kelly Holmes also seemed to be aggrieved when he said running 800m was nothing compared with Paula Radcliffe’s marathons — but Radcliffe suddenly looked rather serious when, in the most amusing of his jokes, Corden asked if anyone had shown her where the toilet was. I guess that some of these people wouldn’t have had a clue who this fat, scruffy oik in a tracksuit was — especially as he’d yet to join comedy royalty because this segment was recorded before he’d had the honour of having his show transmitted as a Christmas Day special

What was most striking, however, was when he went into tub-thumping, jingoistic mode — ‘We Can Win the World Cup, We Can Win Wimbledon’ and followed it up with a combination of sporting cliches about winning. The audience, having been fairly puzzled by the stand-up comedy, then got to its feet and cheered him to the rafters. While this was, no doubt, edited for effect, I’m sure that Corden was ridiculing himself (or his character) at this stage — a point that seemed to be lost on most of the audience. Steve Redgrave, sorry Sir Steve Redgrave, stood there wiping away a tear from his eye which, while it may have been staged, seemed to me to be the sort of reaction he’d make if that sort of speech was given straight. I suppose these sporting celebrities shouldn’t be criticised for reacting in this way — if they had the brains of comedians then we’d never win anything. (It reminds me of Clive Woodward’s, sorry Sir Clive, selection of records on ‘Desert Island Discs’ — it was the most unsubtle, two-dimensional list but, more than anything it was functional — uplifting, ‘euphoric’ anthems like ‘The Greatest Day’ by Take That or ‘Life is A Rollercoaster’ by Ronan Keating plus pumping, adrenaline releasing stuff of the sort they play on BBC Sport programmes incessantly by Eminem or Chicane. I guess his desert island life would be permanent reminiscing of the glory days of the world cup.)

Watching the thing a second time it seems that it was more edited than it may have appeared originally and certain personalities will have been prompted that they were going to get the Smithy treatment and may even have been told to try and keep a straight face (Kelly Holmes for example).  Nevertheless, most of the expressions looked quite transparently horrified that this tubby comedian could get on stage and say things that, taken out of the flimsy ironic context of supposedly been in character, were actually pretty insulting.

However, that re-inforces the paradox of Sport Relief — a comedy vehicle that features some of the straightest and least amusing people possible — although there was a fair amount of blokeish, dressing room humour in evidence when Lineker, Hansen and Lawrenson did Masterchef — sausage and mash, steak and chips and spaghetti a la carbonara — and all cooked quite well — such is the competitive nature of these people. I tend to think these fund raisers, laudable as they are for raising money, tend to be designed as a useful spin-off for celebrities to gauge their relative standing. Christine Bleakley got promoted to hosting a section this year, as did James Corden — so obviously they’re on the up. Obviously they’ll have taken the places of some fading personalities whose phones no longer ring with offers as much as they did when they were on the way up.

One person for whom I have unreserved admiration is Eddie Izzard. I watched the final ‘Marathon Man’ programme, which followed the end of his incredible 43 marathons in 51 days. I had expected him to have prepared thoroughly for such a masochistic challenge but I was amazed to see that he cut a very unathletic character, even with something of a pot belly after more than half the marathons. Even were he to have lost weight his heavy physique is not really one of a distance runner.

I do a bit of running myself but I’ve never gone near anything like marathon distance. The furthest I’ve done is the half-marathon, which is gruelling enough, and, at my pace, meant over two hours of continuous running. I lost a toenail for several months after that and was fatigued for a couple of days — even after having worked up to it for a few weeks. Eddie Izzard apparently only trained for five weeks and so ran at a pace that meant his marathons were taking around five hours — even ten hours in some cases when he was almost literally dead on his feet. To run for ten hours along roads and then do it all again the next day must take the most incredible willpower. I’m not a huge fan of his comedy but I can see how he must have had the determination to make a successful career (he returned to locations in Edinburgh where he’d started as a street perfomer during the programme). Of all the celebrity challenges that are performed for these fundraising events, Izzard’s must be metaphorically, if not athletically, way ahead of the field.

Snogging BBC3, Avoiding 6 Music, Marrying Cynicism or Idiocy

Either the top BBC management are incredibly stupid or they’re trying to be too clever by half — and, quite possibly, they’re both. Why on earth do they think that axing BBC Radio 6 and the Asian Network is a strategic course of action?

By its charter, the BBC has to primarily cover public service obligations that commercial broadcasters arguably won’t undertake but it also feels it can’t be too elitist if it’s levying a regressive tax of £130 per household for its services. Interestingly, the range of programming on channels like Sky Arts and, to a lesser extent, Classic FM and many US cable channels like HBO shows that it’s possible to produce commercial broadcasting that doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence. In fact the most crass, dumbest programming that can be viewed on any remotely mainstream channel (such as on Freeview) is BBC3 — inspiration of gems like ‘F*ck Off I’m Ginger’, ‘Snog, Marry, Avoid’, patronising rubbish snippets of news presented by ‘cool’ presenters who no doubt got the job through their father’s connections down the lodge, repeats of ‘Eastenders’, various programmes where people film their genitals for an hour, ego-trip hagiographies of BBC programme makers (‘Dr Who Confidential’) and where the only half-decent programming is destined for BBC2 anyway. It’s almost entirely absolute total rubbish but is considered inviolable by the idiotic BBC management as it’s targeted at the sacred Yoof market — people who the BBC commissioners completely fail to understand despite their obsessive pursuit of the demographic. You have to end up watching Stag Party Channel on Sky at midnight on a Friday to see anything equivalently witless to the general rubbish pumped out by BBC3.

So this expensive pile of insulting crap remains untouchable whereas a couple of cheap radio stations that serve less fashionable demographics are to be wiped from the schedules. I’m not sure what the Asian Network has done to offend the BBC management so much. I don’t think I’ve ever listened to it but it appears to be a more public service orientated station than its untouched equivalent — 1Extra. This would appear from its publicity to be focused on the sort of music that Radio One provides quite a substantial outlet for and pirate stations in London even more so — and it seems to address a far narrower audience than something generic like the Asian Network. 6 Music falls down because it’s meant to serve those too grown up for Radio One (surely anyone over about 13?) and those not old enough for Radio 2 (over 35s apparently). I thought the targeting of those two stations was simpler — Radio One is for single people and Radio 2 for marrieds or equivalents (just listen to any dedication that comes in on Radio 2 — it always mentions a wonderful spouse).  At heart it’s a fairly serious music station, despite being hijacked by the egos of ‘look at me I’m a rising star’ merchants like George Lamb or that Lauren Laverne,  6 Music is playing the sort of slightly less commercial music that a public service broadcaster ought to play and the last thing that should happen is it to be closed down. Radio One is far harder to justify, as is Radio Two.

People have speculated the whole thing is a cynical exercise in creating a grass-roots movement to ‘save’ 6 Music — perhaps the BBC realised that the crass stations they want to preserve like Radio One and BBC3 wouldn’t generate such almost universal sympathy and goodwill? Yet, if they’ve been cynical enough to do this, they’ve only just drawn further attention to the rubbish that they’ve been too weak to consider touching.

All I can say is that they’d better not even hint that they’re threatening BBC4.

I Get What the BBC Is For Now

…it’s a job creation scheme for gold medal winning athletes from years ago. The Winter Olympics is a case in point. The main qualification seems to be respectable and middle-class rather than to know anything much about the sport. I’m used to people like Sue Barker and Gary Lineker presenting programmes and the likes of Steve Cram do a reasonable job presenting and Matthew Pinsent makes a relatively enthusiastic reporter but this Winter Olympics seems to have the medal winning presenters and reporters crossing the liminal zone into commentator and pundit territory. Therefore Matthew Pinsent has been volunteering his expertise on both curling and ice hockey. He’s a nice chap (I’ve even held one of his gold medals at a corporate event) but I wonder how much more he knows about these sports than any viewer who’s read the papers and watched a bit of it on television. I guess the BBC would argue that he has a unique insight into the psychologyof the medal winning athletes — but that argument is utterly self-defeating because if none of the audience thought they had an ability to try and imagine what it’s like to win gold then the viewing figures would probably be cut by about 95%.

You Need A PhD To Understand the New University Challenge Format

I’ve given up trying to understand the new ‘best-loser’ format in University Challenge. It seems to be more difficult to grasp than the subject matter of most of the questions. One advantage it does have, in television terms, is that you see the teams return more regularly to have another go and you get an interesting sense of déja vu. I particularly welcomed seeing Girton College, Cambridge return to the fray on Monday. They had a particularly gripping bout against St. Andrews where they took an early lead, then were caught up by their opponents (mainly due to an incredible streak of starter answers from someone called Flaherty). I wasn’t too keen on St. Andrews as, although Jeremy Paxman said their average age was 24, they appeared to be mainly mature students (i.e. ones doing PhDs and other research) and not undergraduate students: I always think it’s unfair when a bunch of hairy, beardy, beer-bellied blokes in T-shirts come up against ‘normal’ students.

I found myself getting behind Girton as they eventually pulled ahead of St. Andrews. This might not have been unconnected with the composition of the Girton team — unusually having two female students. Being a thoroughly feminist minded chap I particularly admired the intellect displayed by Becca Cawley (reading English) whose appearance will probably encourage more applications to Oxbridge (admittedly male ones) than any amount of government target-setting. I particularly liked the way she was game to have a go at questions she really didn’t know the answer to (usually because St. Andrews had buzzed too quickly) and the hesitant way she volunteered these answers — the complete antithesis of the sort of arrogant swot one might associate with academia.

In the end I was almost cheering when Girton got through to fight another day. I’ll scrutinise the Radio Times for when this day is as I’ll make a point of watching.

The Day Today Comes to Haiti

I’ve found watching the news coverage of the Haiti earthquake and its aftermath to be quite unsettling. George Alagiah and company stand at the airport anchoring the whole news programme repeatedly telling us how food, fuel and water are in terribly short supply and that people are dying because of the shortages. Would that be the sort of food, fuel and water that news anchors and their attendant crews are consuming? And would space on the flights out to Haiti be better filled with aid than with the size of TV crew required to present the whole bulletin remotely.

By all means send reporters out to show the scale of the problem but it seems completely unnecessary for the news to be presented from the disaster area — morally dubious in its prurience.

This co-incided with the first episode of Charlie Brooker’s new series of Newswipe  on BBC4. I’m generally a great fan of Brooker, though I occasionally find his rants too grating when he drops the self-deprecation and gets too high on his moral horse. In this episode he exposed the irrational faddishness of the editorial decisions made on television news and the pack mentality that seems to have infected news decision making since the advent of 24 hour news channels. There really isn’t much logic in the importance placed on stories — if it fits a particular narrative it gets coverage. It’s not much different from superstition in the middle ages.

Truth often ends up imitating fiction and our news media seems to resemble the ludicrous parodies that Chris Morris produced in the 90s — ‘The Day Today’ and ‘Brass Eye’ (the special of which I have on DVD as it’s not very likely to be repeated).

On Roads

Over Christmas and the New Year I read a really good book that I’d been saving for myself since the autumn as a Christmas present to myself.

It was ‘On Roads: A Hidden History’ by Joe Moran. (There are good reviews in the Guardian and Independent.) It’s a very good book — probably the sort of book the word ‘discursive’ was defined for. Moran takes roads, or more particularly, major roads built this century — from the Kingston Bypass in the 20s but mainly from the advent of motorways — and meanders around the subject, throwing in some fascinating facts and anecdotes.

Having watched the BBC4 series ‘Secret Life of the Motorway’ in 2008 (I think) I recognised some material on motorways that was a little familiar — but fascinating nonetheless. It includes the history of the signage used on motorway signs — and which spread to all road signs in the 60s. The debate on font choice (serif or sans serif) got incredibly ideological.

Part of the appeal of the book is its discussion of what is very familiar to most people who travel round the country on motorways but is rarely discussed — such as motorway services, design of signs and so on.

The author mentions parts of motorways, such as the M1 in Bedfordshire or the M62 over Windy Hill or the M40 (the last major motorway to be built — all of 19 years ago), as if recalling old friends, which to many readers they are. He also discusses the irrationality of much of the road system — mainly as the grand designs of the 50s and 60s were scaled back on a piecemeal basis due to lack of funding and, latterly, anti-road protests. The irony is that a half-finished road plan is probably worse for the environment than if it was properly finished — such as the infamous stretch of the A57 through Mottram where the M67 discharges 3 lanes of motorway traffic into what’s effectively the main street through the village — a place to be avoided during the day. There are also plenty of urban motorways that similarly funnel traffic into inappropriate areas or are hugely underused as they hardly go anywhere (like the old M41 that nowprincipally serves as a feeder road into the Westfield Shopping Centre). 

Moran gives the anti-road movement a lot of coverage. However, he points out many of their hypocrisies — such as how Winchester College was initially happy to sell the land through Twyford Down for the M3 extension but when the road came to be built the head (or however schools like that term the person in charge) was one of the prime protesters. He also mentions how the old A33, which the Twyford Down section replaced, has now been buried under much of the spoil taken from the M3 construction and has been very effectively reclaimed by nature. He argues that roads aren’t actually very permanent and neglected for a few years will start to be colonised by plants and trees — something that can well be believed seeing the way potholes emerged from under the melting snow recently.

He also argues that roads are no less destructive to the countryside than railways were and that many people are misled by the out-of-proportion markings of roads in an atlas (you need to get down to about 1:25,000 OS Explorer map scale before they’re anything like accurate). I’ve certainly noticed that, apart from big junctions, roads tend to be less visible from the air than railways. 

I’ve followed the impressive reconstruction of the M1 between junctions 6A and 10 with great interest since 2006 — I even went to a local consultation display at Slip End near Luton. I was therefore fascinated to read that Slip End and the nearby hamlet of Pepperstock have a legendary status in British motorway history as the first earth was moved for a British motorway at Slip End and the opening ceremony for the M1 was held at Pepperstock (junction 10 as it is now). (The M6 round Preston opened earlier but I think construction started later.) I’ve driven on or under that part of the M1 most days for the last four or five years.

At the end of the book he dwells on our generally hypocritical attitude to roads — popular imagination (as stoked by cliches perpetuated by the likes of the BBC) would suggest the British hate their roads but Moran suggests the relationship is far more benign and complex.

I Love Jeremy Vine

When I get the opportunity I love to listen to Jeremy Vine at lunchtime on Radio Two — I even started running at lunchtimes partly so I could listen to his show.

Part of the appeal is the mix of serious discussion with the absolutely ludicrous and including the whole spectrum in between.

Vine is also the heir to Lesley Crowther, when he presented ‘The Price is Right’ (‘you’re a frozen food salesman, how wonderful!)  in his ability to sound completely sympathetic and sincere to his interviewees but also planting the merest hint that he might not be as totally straight with them as they might thing. That may be entirely unintentional but I like to think I pick up more than a slight touch of irony.

Today’s showis a great example of the subject matter. We are promised: an earnest discussion on the power of supermarkets over the agricultural industry; a guide to the little known but now controversial country of Yemen; an item on meditation and how its practice might help people overcome depression; and a discussion on the ex-mayor of Preesall who, no doubt due to the ubiquity of his photgraph on the web, is now famous for his conviction for breaking into houses and stealing womens’ underwear! I’m sure the last item will be a sensitively handled debate on people inclined to transgenderism by proxy and not a cheap excuse for a few Carry On Film type jokes.

An Ageing Celtic Primadonna Loses His Big Star

The star wanes on a dynasty of unparalleled recent success — an egotistical, Celtic Svengali watches as the sun sets on his creation. He presides over the drawn-out departure of the big star that he created and the commentators wonder whether, in the context of an inevitable but obvious deterioration in form and originality, that the remarkable success was down to the now-wearisome personality or some now lost management genius.

I wonder if Alex Ferguson was watching Dr. Who over the Christmas holidays?

‘Most Footballers Are Knobs’

The immortal words of Joey Barton on this morning’s Today programme. It was guest edited by Tony Adams so every other item on the programme was about football or sport. Barton gave a long interview about his ‘troubles’ which was quite entertaining and he wasn’t quite as stupid and inarticulate as you might have thought, although he didn’t pull his punches about the immaturity of the personalities of his fellow professionals — explaining that they have often come from backgrounds of ‘nothing’.

It’s surprising how many ex-professional players make lucid and intelligent summarisers and analysts (although you tend to think they usually pull their punches due to the old pros’ Omerta).  However, being a great player is no guarantee of intelligence as several high profile names have shown recently.

I listened to the programme from about 7.45am onwards and it was surprisingly interesting — quite a bit about sportsmen and addition, as one might anticipate.

‘I Grew Up Watching This’

So said ‘shocked’ BBC Sports Personality Winner of the Year 2009, Ryan Giggs, in his genuinely unrehearsed speech. Ironic then that most of the generation that will succeed Giggs were growing up watching the X-Factor on ITV. What sort of values the X-Factor implants into impressionable minds we might not know until it’s too late, when any genuine creative talent in this country has finally been snuffed out. The lessons of the X-Factor seem to have been predicted by the Pet Shop Boys song ‘Opportunities’ nearly 25 years ago — ‘I’ve got the brains, you’ve got the looks, let’s make lots of money.’ In fact the principle of grooming some nice boy singer to croon other people’s songs pre-dated the Pet Shop Boys by another 25 years — it was the way ‘Tin Pan Alley’ worked up until the early 60s when the Beatles broke the mould (at least for the next 40 years or so) by both writing and performing their own material. How ironic then that who should pop up on the X-Factor final but Paul McCartney. I was quite pleased to see him — at least two of the songs were performed by the person that wrote them. I would doubt whether any X-Factor winner will ever write, or more to the point be allowed to write, their own material. It was quite nice to see McCartney performing live on the biggest TV show this year but it throws up an interesting question — was Paul McCartney unwittingly bookending the era of innovative pop music that he largely started?

The most annoying thing about the X-Factor is the ridiculous hysteria in the audience. The sound mixers on the programme must realise that the judges rarely contribute anything other than vapid platitudes so the whooping and yelling of the idiots in the audience is mixed high. I speculated whether audience members for the X-Factor had to take an intelligence test and only those that failed it would be eligible for tickets. This is unlikely to be true as the pass mark would need to be set so low that only people who had yet to learn to hold a pencil would have a realistic chance of getting tickets . Whoever manipulates the audience seems to be peddling the absurd New Labour notion (especially in the context of a talent show) that everyone’s a winner and everyone deserves to win and be praised by the judges. If everyone could win then there would be no show — that’s the whole point of it. It seems to be an extension of the Blairite Lady Diana ‘People’s Princess’ self-conscious emoting.

It was odd for Giggs to be selected for the shortlist this year — he must have been coming up for a lifetime achievement soon anyway. However, he showed in his speech that he did have a real personality — a far more genuine set of comments than those rehearsed with PR advisers in advance.

Sports PERSONALITY of the Year

The BBC seems to consistently misname its Sports Personality of the Year Programme. For one thing, it’s really a Sports Review of the Year, although the BBC’s loss of the rights to many sporting events over the past few years mean it tends to be a ‘Sports Review of the Sports the BBC Chooses to Promote’ programme (let’s see how much emphasis F1 and Wimbledon get this year). However, the voting is clearly misnamed as it takes no account of the crucial word ‘personality’. How many sportsmen and women actually demonstrate a personality at all? Not many — perhaps a few colourful characters like Freddie Flintoff or John McEnroe. Most have very little personality — even the likes of David Beckham have more of a persona than personality (his interviews are all underwhelming).  Which of the ten contenders for 2009 actually have a personality that is apparent to the spectating public?

  1. Jenson Button
  2. Mark Cavendish
  3. Tom Daley
  4. Jessica Ennis
  5. Ryan Giggs
  6. David Haye
  7. Phillips Idowu
  8. Andy Murray
  9. Andrew Strauss
  10. Beth Tweddle

I don’t think I’ve ever heard Button, Cavendish, Ennis, Idowu or Tweddle ever speak (shows how closely I follow F1). Daley is still a schoolkid and Murray rivals Beckham as an entertaining interviewee. Giggs is an extraordinary footballer and a seemingly nice chap all round but he does his talking on the pitch — all things that could be applied to Strauss. The only one I’ve seen with an engaging personality is Haye.

No doubt Button will win due to the world champion factor (but we could say that about Haye in some respects).

If we’re talking personality then there’s no doubt who the overseas award should go to — someone who previously could have been charged with being ultra-anodyne and corporately bland but has appeared incredibly human in the past week or two — Tiger Woods.

GNVQs in Tin Opening? Breathalysers in the Kitchen?

The Restaurant on BBC2 promised to plumb further depths of the stupidity of the deluded members of the British middle-class who convince themselves that running a restaurant is some sort of decadent leisure activity for the indolent celebrity class rather than be a very hard way of making a living. (Beware: spoiler alert below).

There was some shocking ineptness from the start when the contestants were asked to cook a ‘signature’ dish — some of them tried something they’d never even attempted before. They knew that their dish would be served to Raymond Blanc (with his two Michelin stars), although they might not have been aware that he’d be wandering round the kitchen looking at the packaging on their food. Even so, it was staggering that three of the couples went shopping for their food in Asda (‘voted Britain’s cheapest supermarket). Now Asda can do a few foodie things that even M&S and Waitrose don’t do (chopped up organic carrot batons for one) but its customer base cannot be said to be the most discerning smoked salmon connoisseurs. (I’m not being a food snob. I go there myself sometimes where it’s fine for basic things but a smoked salmon specialist it’s definitely not.). It was no surprise that they failed to find gravadlax there — this is probably only reliably found at Christmas in places like M&S, though Waitrose has plenty of types of smoked salmon and may do it all year round. The thought of going to a specialist smoked fish supplier probably never crossed their minds. Even so, this pair did nothing with their plain Asda smoked salmon except put it on a plate with a load of chopped up beetroot or something and a few crusts of bread. They then stood around looking pleased with themselves while the other contestants busted a gut to finish their dishes in an hour. Even so, they survived until next week.

One of the most intriguing things about this reality show is the mismatched abilities of the couples. One has to deal with front of house while the other is the chef. Often one of the two is reasonably competent with the other being completely useless and a persistent cause of failure — this leads to fascinating strains in the partnership, particularly when the two are related. There was a team of dominating mother and henpecked son. She was a decent cook but lost out because her son told the lovely Sarah (who has one of the most comically expressive faces on television) that it was impossible to describe his mother’s restaurant concept — completely clueless.

The most amazing part of the show came when another parent-child couple tried to open a coconut — which they eventually manage to bludgeon into a pulp — and then were stumped by a tin of evaporated milk. The daughter of the couple didn’t look so young she’d never have encountered old style tins (without the handy ring on the top) but she seemed to have no concept of what a tin opener was. Perhaps using a tin opener will need to be taught and assessed in schools (maybe it’s on the A-level syllabus for domestic science, which explains youngsters’ ignorance) or perhaps the sharp edges to the tins break health and safety regulations? However, what health and safety types wilfully fail to

An Innovative Way to Open A Tin of Condensed Milk
An Innovative Way to Open A Tin of Condensed Milk

recognise is the incredibly dangerous methods people dream up to achieve their objectives left to their own devices. In the case of the can of condensed milk, the opening method attempted was to hold a butcher’s cleaver vertically against the can lid (its point downwards) and to then hammer the knife handle with a rolling pin. The film crew must have been waiting hopefully for an accidental disembowelment if the extra sharp Raymond Blanc knife slipped into the woman’s stomach when she attempted to smash down on the knife to gain access to the tin. Fortunately, Raymond spotted her in time and showed her a helpful gadget that has no doubt saved many lives in similar circumstances in about 150 years of canned food — a tin opener. It would have been fascinating to see the education in other kitchen utensils that this couple may have gained in later episodes — oven gloves, corkscrews, bottle openers, perhaps — but Raymond sadly sent them home for their own safety.

It makes quite a serious point about health and safety as almost everyone has enough in their kitchen to do horrendous damage to both themselves and others — sharp knives, roasting hot ovens, boiling water, naked flames. Yet many people happily cook complex meals involving these and many other dangers while lubricating themselves with alcohol at well over the legal drink drive limit. Watch out for the government to go into cahoots with ready meal makers and supermarkets and bring in the kitchen breathalyser built into appliances which will lock all drawers and turn off all appliances except the microwave (to be used for M&S ready meals) if a cook is found to be over the limit.

Mr Modesty?

Web cvs are obviously designed to promote their subject but Anton du Beke surely goes just a little over the top with his: ‘Witty, charismatic and a natural entertainer, Anton’s skills in front of an audience extend far beyond his exceptional ballroom talents.’ My own cv is a minor masterclass in bullshit but Anton is leagues ahead. Does ‘skill in front of an audience’ extend to being knocked into a tank of water by a huge polystyrene wall as in ‘Hole in the Wall’? This is a programme that makes Jeux Sans Frontieres of the 1970s look like a philosophical treatise. Remember Stuart Hall crackling and wheezeing down a phone line ‘Ha ha ha, just look at the Belgians, ho ho ho’?

Good to see that Anton and Erin (Boag his professional partner who’s also on Strictly Come Dancing) have realised that they can tap the corporate market. Compared to some of the egos and bullies they’ll come across on their management team building dance workshops, Anton will be the model of modesty.

Tonight’s ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ was notable for having an act in the intermission that danced to a particularly superb song of the 60s — although the house band’s arrangement followed the Santana 70s version. ‘She’s Not There’ is an iconic song — its languid verses contrasting with an increasingly frenetic chorus. The negative of the song’s lyrics echoed by the drumming on the off-beat.

Wednesdays Will Never Be the Same Again At the Red Lion, Caerleon

I had dismal hopes for the Channel Four programme — the Red Lion — on Thursday. Another instalment of government promoted doom and gloom about the evils of drinking seemed on the cards.

The programme visited 10 of the 600 Red Lion pubs in the country (the most popular pub name) and the first one featured unashamed, wanton binge drinking, the only objective of which was ‘to get hammered’ — but this was by a group of women. It was a student netball team from Newport University (no, I never realised there was a university there either) who religiously went out on a Wednesday to get completely plastered playing ‘pub golf’ (a close relative of drinking golf that I’ve played myself) at 9 local pubs. So the programme started with a dozen or so girls downing a pint of Guinness in one at the Red Lion. Rather than be apologetic, the students they interviewed were refreshingly honest about their motives — drinking to get pissed (although they have to be able to stand up or else that would be a bad night) and ‘feeling like shit’ the next morning was a big part of it. These women were not violent or sad or ill — they were all pretty athletic as they played netball for the university. I remained in awe as they went on to other pubs in Caerleon to down other drinks in one. I expect that, after this programme, Caerleon will never be the same again on a Wednesday night as hundreds of male binge drinkers will no doubt want to make a favourable impression on the netball players by consuming even larger amounts of alcohol. Where is it again?

After that classic opening, the programme went to a reasonable cross section of other Red Lions. It seemed that even when they found the inevitable solitary drinkers whose whole lives revolved around the pub that even these characters came out of the programme with a lot of dignity. My favourite Red Lion was one in Whitworth, north of Rochdale, which was pretty typical of the pubs I learned to drink in (in Tim Martin approved fashion) myself just over the hills from there. There was one Rugby League player who cheerfully admitted to spending £100 on beer a week — as he didn’t have much else to do. He also gave one of the most eloquent descriptions of the pleasure of being mildly inebriated.  As with the netball players, even the BMA might have problems correlating the large volume of alcohol consumed with the physical fitness required of the players. (It brings to mind the conclusion that Jancis Robinson came to in The Demon Drink when she reviewed the scientific literature that the people who drink most do so because they can — i.e. fit young people in their 20s can outdrink almost anyone with no ill effects.)

What the programme managed to convey quite effectively was the sense of camaraderie and community that can be found in all good pubs. It showed the pub is a leveller of society and class — with the regulars being incredibly brutal in their comments towards each other but all done so in the safe knowledge that they’ll be back there the next night. The pub pricks pretension and is an amazing social leveller. Many of these issues have been examined by social anthropologist, Kate Fox, who devotes a whole section of her book ‘Watching the English’ to the etiquette of round buying. The last Red Lion was closed — bought up by an owner who has no intention of re-opening it but, by the look of the boarded up windows, can’t get planning permission to do anything else with the building. Speculating and profiteering were ripping the heart out of a community — odd that after 12 years of New Labour.

There was plenty of potential for ridiculing the pubgoers, who were remarkably candid, but what came across was an amazing feeling of common humanity bonding the pubgoers. After all, the pub is basically an institution where ‘the public’ are invited into a ‘house’.  The programme generated a very favourable review in The Guardian. I can’t put the conclusion better myself:  ‘a lovely portrait of a peculiarly British institution’. The Times review says ‘Drinking in moderation, the contributors suggested, was a dreary waste of time.’ I couldn’t possibly comment.